HALLOWELL — All signs point to the city’s only Catholic church closing before October’s end, and though no final decision has been made, its parishioners are bracing for the end of an era.
On Thursday, the Rev. Francis Morin, administrator of the Augusta-based St. Michael Catholic Parish and the Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Summer Street in Hallowell, said he “probably” would recommend the Hallowell church’s closing.
If Bishop Richard Malone, the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, were to accept Morin’s likely recommendation, Morin said, the 138-member church should close by October’s end to avoid heating bills.
Morin relayed that sentiment to parishioners at a meeting Wednesday evening at Sacred Heart. He said his final recommendation will be made public within the next few weeks.
“I was confirmed there, I took my First Communion there, I was married there — twice, in fact — and I’ve buried most of my family out of that church,” said Anthony Masciadri, 71, a former Hallowell mayor and city businessman. “It’s too bad. It’s a nice church.”
Sacred Heart, the white church on a hillside overlooking a picturesque stretch of the Kennebec River, was built in 1878 so local Catholics wouldn’t have to make long walks to Augusta or Whitefield to worship.
Morin said the church’s proximity to other churches, namely St. Mary in Augusta and St. Joseph in Gardiner, is a main reason the diocese could close it, along with staffing concerns and the cost of maintaining church buildings.
“It’s kind of difficult to justify preserving a very tiny place that’s so close to two other places,” Morin said.
However, some of the approximately 75 parishioners who attended the meeting with Morin on Wednesday said the congregation’s sentiment is unified: They want to remain a church.
“I didn’t feel that anything we presented changed his logic,” said Frank O’Hara, a church member from Hallowell.
City resident Dick Bachelder, 85, who has attended Sacred Heart his entire life, said he was disappointed by the way the meeting was handled.
“The decision was made before they even met with us,” he said.
The news comes at a raw time for the congregation, less than a month after the death of the Rev. George Hickey, who had been the church’s pastor since 1999.
However, his death always was expected to signal large-scale change for the church.
In 2007, the diocese agreed to let Sacred Heart operate as its own parish until Hickey’s retirement or death. After that, the agreement was that the church would become part of St. Michael Parish, made up of five churches in Augusta, Gardiner, Winthrop and Whitefield.
“I knew Father Hickey was going to be the last priest. There was no question about that,” Masciadri said. “This was no surprise unless you had your head in the sand.”
Nationwide, it’s in keeping with demographic shifts that have forced the Catholic Church, along with many other branches of Christianity and other faiths, to downsize.
Since 2011, six Catholic churches statewide have been closed, according to Dave Guthro, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. One, in South Berwick, has opened in that time, while another is being built in Jackman.
Two in St. Michael Parish — St. Andrew Church in Augusta and St. Leo Church in Litchfield — were shuttered in 2011. Other closures occurred in Waterville, Auburn, Thomaston and Portland.
Still, the likelihood of Sacred Heart joining those churches hurts the congregation.
Bachelder hasn’t decided, but if his church closes, he may attend St. Joseph, the Gardiner church his late wife, Betty, attended.
While dubbing himself a church “old-timer,” he said he feels worse for the younger members of Sacred Heart, who have created a vibrant parish and could have a hard time fitting in elsewhere.
Melissa Jones, 25, of Augusta, doesn’t know another place of worship. Every Sunday, she drives by St. Mary, a bigger church on Augusta’s Western Avenue, to attend Sacred Heart, where she leads the youth ministry.
She’s gone there her whole life. Her parents and her grandparents were married there. If Morin’s likely recommendation holds, she won’t have the chance.
“We see such a big future with Sacred Heart, and we don’t know where it will go from here,” Jones said.
Michael Shepherd — 621-5632